What Do We Do About Fewer Women At India Inc?

A recent Gender Diversity Benchmark for Asia 2011 study reveals that among 6 Asian countries, India fares pretty poorly when it comes to the presence of women in the organised workforce. (The complete report can be found here, PDF).

Some findings:

– We are the worst scorers on presence of women in junior as well as middle level positions.

– Unlike other countries where the biggest leak of women takes place between middle and senior positions, in India, the leak is between junior and middle level.

– Among the women specifically identified as high-potential by their companies, and nominated for in-depth interviews, 80% aspired to very senior level positions. There is no mention of any differences by country here.

I found this data interesting because it tells us that while constraints such as difficulty in networking in still predominantly male environments and lack of respect for personal time disproportionately affect women’s careers (many respondents mentioned these too), in India the expectations from families too play a big role in how women’s careers pan out. Indian women get married earlier – because there is pressure from families to do so, or because societal norms on the ‘right age’ for a woman to get married have been internalised. Early marriage, early motherhood – hence the huge leak between junior and mid-levels.

What’s more – when compared to other Asian countries, fewer women enter junior-level roles in the sort of large (and likely, high paying) companies included in the study. That ties up well with what we know about fewer women writing entrance exams for professional courses, especially at the post-grad level.  So, the reasons for fewer women in India Inc are not simple – its a mix of many reasons. Few get there, fewer stay there.

The low level of women at junior and mid-levels is a concern. When women drop out after mid-level, they have already accumulated a significant amount of industry knowledge and networks – which makes it easier for them to either return to work with an organisation or take alternative career paths such as consulting or starting a business. For women who drop out very early, after working for say just 1-3 years, little of that knowledge or networking is available. It is also more difficult for them to demand flexible work arrangements, in a situation where these are often ‘boss-dependent’ or loosely defined.

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Why is that a concern? Isn’t dropping out just a ‘choice’? Well, it is possibly a choice, but equally, it is a choice that often creates problems for women at a later stage when they find themselves with little financial autonomy. For every woman who has stayed happy with her choice to give up her career, I know one who regrets it 5 years down the line and finds herself unable to get back in. In many cases, the choice is also heavily dictated by familial pressure, even in educated families. We have families supporting women right up to when their education is complete, but post this, the focus shifts heavily to getting married and having a child as early as possible. If truly a choice, early motherhood isn’t a problem in itself – it is the lack of support to return, both from the family and from institutions.

It is also a concern for organisations – in the larger picture, having a diverse organisation helps to bring in many different problem-solving approaches, and losing women means losing out on this. Linear career models that don’t factor in many women’s need to take career breaks for motherhood are part of the problem, but organisations alone can’t address this leaking pipeline. They can address significant parts though, starting with not looking at career breaks as a lack of ambition or interest in one’s career and being genuinely respectful of personal time, not just paying lip service to ‘work-life balance’.


About the Author

Aparna Vedapuri Singh

Founder & Chief Editor of Women's Web, Aparna believes in the power of ideas and conversations to create change. She has been writing since she was ten. In another life, she used to be read more...

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